Top 5 Deadliest Avalanches in History and How to Survive One

 Top 5 Deadliest Avalanches in History and How to Survive One

Avalanches are disastrous natural forces, made of fast flowing snow, ice, and rock that destroy anything in their way. The steeper and taller the mountain, the more deadly an avalanche can be, as its velocity increases while cascading down.

Throughout history, avalanches have been responsible for massive destruction. Today, we are going to be looking at the 5 most deadliest avalanches through history.

5. Winter of Terror 1950-1951

Over the course of three months, 265 people lost their lives after a number of avalanches rocked the Swiss-Austrian Alps. This period came to be known as the winter of Terror.

There were a total of 649 avalanches which destroyed over 900 buildings and thousands of acres of forests. It is thought to have been the result of atypical weather conditions in the Alps resulting in 10-15 ft of snowfall in a two-to-three-day period.

4. 2015 Afghani Avalanches

In February of 2015, a total of 40 avalanches in Panjshir Province, Afghanistan killed at least 310 people, and left a further 129 wounded. According to the acting governor of Panjshir, Abdul Rahman Kabiri, these avalanches were the worst that Afghanistan had seen in three decades.

The avalanches were caused by heavy snowstorms in the area. Rising temperatures may have also had an effect, due to the fact that temperature rise can affect the cohesion of snow.

3. 1962 Huascaran Avalanche

On the evening of January 10, 1962, an avalanche on the slopes of an extinct volcano killed more than 4,000 people in Peru when the edge of a giant glacier broke apart and thundered down the mountain. Nine towns and seven smaller villages were destroyed.

The block of ice was the size of two skyscrapers and weighed approximately 6 million tons.

As avalanches were not unusual in the area, it was common knowledge that there was usually a 20 to 30 minute gap between the sound of the ice cracking off and an avalanche, which gave people time to seek higher ground. However, this time, the avalanche traveled nine-and-a-half miles in only seven minutes, wiping away several communities. The towns of Ranrahirca and Huarascucho were buried under 40 feet of ice, mud, trees, boulders and other debris. Only a handful of people in each town survived. The avalanche finally ended at the Santa River, where it stopped the water flow, causing flooding in nearby areas.

In addition to the more than 4,000 human lives lost, A further 10,000 farm animals were killed and millions of dollars in crops were destroyed.

2. White Friday/Alpine Front Line Avalanches

In December of 1916, during the worst days of World War I, a series of avalanches in the Italian Alps killed around 10,000 Italian and Austrian soldiers fighting against each other. Some witnesses claim that the avalanches were purposefully triggered by the activities of soldiers on both sides in efforts to destroy their respective oppositions’ forces.

Heavy snowfall in the winter of 1916 had further catalyzed the possibility of avalanches in the region. On December 13th, the first avalanche, involving around 100,000 tons of ice, snow, and rocks, plunged down Mount Marmolada into the barracks of the Austrian soldiers lying directly in its path.

Though 200 soldiers survived, 300 others died in this accident. However, this was just the beginning. Within the next few weeks, many other avalanches struck the area, with disturbingly high frequencies of snowfalls claiming several more thousands of lives.

1. 1970 Huascarán-Ancash, Peru

The worst natural disaster in the history of Peru occurred on May 31, 1970, and is known as the Ancash Earthquake, or the Great Peruvian Earthquake. The earthquake triggered an avalanche that alone claimed the lives of almost 20,000 people, making it the deadliest avalanche in the recorded history of humankind.

The epicenter of the earthquake was located 21 miles off the coast of Peru in the Pacific Ocean, and the Peruvian regions of Ancash and La Libertad were the worst affected in this disaster. A massive avalanche struck the towns of Yungay and Ranrahirca when the earthquake destabilized the northern walls of Mount Huascarán.

A large chunk of ice and snow, 910 meters wide and 1.6 kilometers long, sped down the mountain at speeds of 280 to 335 kilometers per hour. As it moved, it completely devastated all that came in its path, with its massive volumes of ice, water, mud, and rock alike.

How to Survive an Avalanche

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, avalanches destroy anything in their way. However, with a little luck and the correct technique, you stand a much better chance of survival.

Understand the Danger Ratings

Familiarise yourself with the five international avalanche danger levels: 1 is low risk of avalanches, 2 is moderate, 3 is considerable, 4 is high and 5 is extreme.

LowModerateConsiderableHighVery High
Very few unstable slabs. The snow pack is well bonded and stable in most places.Unstable slabs possible on some steep slopes.Unstable slabs probable on some steep slopes.Unstable slabs likely on many steep slopes.The snowpack is weakly bonded and very unstable.

Avalanche Beacons

Avalanche beacons in the hands of a trained and practiced user can make the difference between life or death if an avalanche strikes. If someone gets buried in an avalanche, other beacons carried by the party pick up the signal being emitted from under the snow to assist in the search. Do the smart thing and always carry a beacon before setting foot on a mountain.


Legs down, arms up and roll sideways to the flanks of the avalanche. Keep an angle of 40 degrees towards the fall line and try with your arms to literally swim upwards. Grab as much of the snowpack that is not sliding and move like that to the flanks.

Keep One Arm Up

This won’t be necessarily easy but has two benefits. Keeping one arm above your head during an avalanche can make it easier for rescuers to spot you if your hand is sticking out of the snow, and with any luck, you’ll know which direction is up.


If you’ve been trapped under an avalanche, spitting can save your life. As soon as you stop moving, quickly work to open a space in front of your face. Not only will this pocket give you room to breathe, it will give you space to spit. Note where gravity carries your spit, then dig in the opposite direction.

Keep Calm

I have never been buried by an avalanche but I am pretty sure it would be incredibly nerve-wracking. In most cases, victims have a 15-minute window in which they can carve out areas to breathe under the snow. Panicking will speed your breath and shorten your window, so calmly work on digging your way out.

Step Uphill

If the avalanche has started beneath you try to keep from sliding with it by taking a step uphill if you’re on skis or try to dig into the bed surface with your edges.

Move to the Side

If you find yourself sliding along with the snow, try to get up on your board or skis and try your best to move toward the side and out of the avalanche. Try to get the attention of your group by yelling loudly, so they can keep observing you.

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